The kingdom of Dian in Yunnan Province, which reached its height during the second and first centuries BCE, was one of the richest ancient civilizations in southwestern China. The frank realism and exotic imagery of the bronzes from the Dian kingdom illustrate the foreign heritage of its people and the huge distances, both culturally and artistically, separating them from the Han court. All Dian bronzes on exhibit were cast using the lost-wax technique, which allows intricate, highly sculptural designs.

Two dancers wearing fitted trousers and short tunics form a buckle ornament that illustrates central Asian influence on Dian culture, as their garments are typical of the horse-riding tribes of central Asia. Similarly, the offering stand, with its theme of animal combat, derives from the animal style of the Eurasian steppes. Bulls appear to have had special significance in Dian ritual and sacrifice.

  By the Han dynasty much of the bronze industry was devoted to making bronzes of ingenious design for secular instead of ritual use. This lamp in the shape of a wild goose has a thoughtful, ecologically minded design. As the wick burns in the cylinder on the goose's back, the vertical panels that form the cylinder can be slid back and forth to direct the light where it is needed. The smoke from the burning oil rises up and is channeled through the fish-shaped cover into the neck of the goose. From there it descends into the water-filled hollow body where it is absorbed and, thus, prevented from polluting the air. Lamps in a variety of animal and human shapes were among the most creative products of the Han bronze industry.
  A magical mountain range, home to a melee of real and imaginary animals, people, and plants, extends over all four registers of this chariot fitting. Dragons and phoenixes, owls, deer, and bears-animals found in China or Chinese myth-mingle with the creatures of southern and western Asia: top-knotted foreigners are shown riding elephants and camels, a mounted bowman aims a Parthian shot at a tiger, and swift horses are depicted with wings. Many of these creatures were considered auspicious omens. The political power of the expansive Han dynasty, which extended into southeastern and central Asia, made the peoples and creatures of China's borders known-although not familiar-to the Chinese. Bronzes such as this were exotica and they are shown here enhanced by lavish inlays of gold, silver, and turquoise, colors that might have approximated the brightly appliquéd felts and other fabrics worn by the border peoples.